Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger & Louise Brooks

J.D. Salinger, the novelist and short story writer and the author of Catcher in the Rye, has died at the age of 91. Today, the New York Times ran a long obit about this equally renown and reclusive author.

I am sure that Salinger never met Louise Brooks (though I can imagine them somehow  encountering one another in NYC in the late 1940s or early 1950s), nor is it known if the author was especially aware of the actress. However, they did have something in common.They both had the same editor, William Shawn.

A good deal of Salinger's short fiction appeared in the New Yorker* magazine, where Shawn was its legendary editor. Salinger considered Shawn a good friend, and even went so far as to dedicate one of his works to Shawn. Shawn also edited and wrote the introduction to the first edition of Louise Brooks' own book, Lulu in Hollywood.

Besides a common friend, Salinger and Brooks also shared something deeper - a psychological impulse which shaped their lives. In 2008, ran interview with Kevin Bazzana, author of Lost Genius, a biography of the eccentric Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyház. A child prodigy, Nyiregyház was acclaimed on two continents and championed by the likes of Bela Lugosi and Arnold Schoenberg before giving up performing in public.

In the interview, Bazzana is asked "Are there historical figures in music, or in the other arts, who, by virtue of their combination of talent and lack of success, might be compared to Nyiregyházi?" The biographer answered with something I thought quite interesting.

"In the conclusion of the book, I wrote: 'The spectacularly gifted but psychologically cursed artist who seems reluctant to practice his art is a type uncommon but not unknown.'

When I wrote this, I was thinking of artists like the writer J. D. Salinger, the conductor Carlos Kleiber, the pianist Glenn Gould, the actors Louise Brooks and Marlon Brando, the chess master Bobby Fischer. These are artists of incredible talent and individuality, yet the price of their particular gift was the kind of psychology that seemed not to permit them to enjoy an ordinary career and the high productivity that their fans would have liked.

Salinger simply couldn't stand being famous, and so refused to be a public figure any longer, even to the point of refusing to publish anything. Kleiber is widely considered the greatest conductor of our time, yet his perfectionism made it scarcely possible for him to conduct; his output was tiny, highly selective--yet of unrivaled quality. Gould had so many personal and musical hang-ups about live performance that he quit the concert scene entirely and retreated to the recording studio. Brooks and Brando simply couldn't stomach what was required to have a Hollywood career; you are left with the irony of someone of Brando's talent and individuality being so convinced of the triviality of what he does that he's scarcely willing to do it anymore! And Fischer, well …

Some of these figures had huge success; some had limited success; some had success and then failure. But what they all had in common was a particular kind of gift that was incompatible with the normal professional exercise of that gift.

It's a tragedy, really, because those artists with that particular kind of career-sabotaging psychology are often the greatest and most individual of all. We can only sigh heavily, and accept them as they are and be grateful for what little of them we have."

* The New Yorker also published Kenneth Tynan's celebrated essay about Louise Brooks, "The Girl in the Black Helmet."


  1. I appreciated your thoughtful reference to the unmatched Carlos Kleiber. There was something about his art that was so riveting, profound and illuminating as to provoke the very comments you offered.

    He was well aware of what the world thought of him; he was, however, never in thrall to that world. Carlos stood on a bedrock of pure music, and only when it was possible to work with people of equal devotion could he work at all.

    I knew and studied with him from 1989 to the end. Like the others you have named he was empowered by his genius, but denied by the ordinaries of the world. My book, 'Corresponding With Carlos', will be coming out in the late summer and, I hope, help answer a few of the endless questions about this amazing artist. Thank you for having raised them.

    Dr Charles Barber

  2. Dr. Barber, thank you for your comments.

    I should mention that the reference to Carlos Kleiber was contained within a quote from an interview with the author of the book on Ervin Nyiregyház.

    Nevertheless, I shall look for your book.


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